Levites Named Priests


Numbers 3


The term “tribes of Israel” first appeared in Genesis 49:28, when Jacob was pronouncing his final blessings to his sons. At that early stage, Joseph and Levi were both listed as Tribes. However, Jacob had already prophesied in Genesis 48:5 that Joseph’s sons would be elevated to the status of Jacob’s sons. Throughout Exodus and Leviticus, we find two reminders that there are twelve tribes of Israel1.


In Numbers 1, we have the first national census. Numbers 1:4 cites the census as by tribe, and the census lists Ephraim and Manasseh as tribes. The most recent time before Numbers that Ephraim and Manasseh were mentioned was Genesis 50:23, when Ephraim’s great-grandchildren and Manasseh’s grandchildren were crawling on Joseph’s lap.


In Numbers 2, as Israel was near the end of their year-long retreat at Mount Sinai, the tribes were arranged for the upcoming journey. This placed order in the otherwise chaos of having 2 million people walking randomly through unmarked territory. The Levites would hike in the center, as they carried the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:8). Three tribes each would hike to the North, the South, the East, and the West of the Ark. On the west side were Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin, the natural children of Rachael.


Each direction had a lead tribe, as it were: Judah on the East; Reuben on the South; Ephraim on the West; and Dan on the South. For whatever reason (I won’t even guess, but I am sure there is a reason), God called the eight non-lead houses “tribes;” He called the four lead houses “the standard of the forces.” Ephraim is not cited as a “tribe” in Numbers 2. But neither were 1) the tribe that would bear the Christ; 2) the tribe of Jacob’s eldest; and 3) the tribe that judges the people.


Numbers 3 marks a watershed of Israel’s governance. In Exodus 13:2, God claimed special rights to the firstborn. It must have been evident to the people by now that Joseph gets two houses, and that Levi gets called to a special assignment. Numbers 3 is the coronation of what God has been hinting at since they established camp at Sinai.


A special census2 was ordered. The Levites (still called a “tribe” in Numbers 3:6, and would occasionally be called a tribe with no inheritance up to Joshua 13:33); and the firstborn from all tribes were counted.


The count was close: Levites 22,000; firstborn 22,273. So God formally inaugurated a trade. Exodus 13:2 was fulfilled, and God’s special people were the Levites.


Since God was giving up 273 more people than He was getting back, a special tax was called. The tax raised 1,365 (5 times 273) shekels to serve as the Levites’ inaugural treasury.


1Exodus 24:4 and Exodus 28:21. It is not clear exactly when the tribes were reconfigured to elevate the House of Joseph into two tribes. As of Exodus 28, the last time the tribes were enumerated on record was in Genesis 49, and they would not be enumerated again on record until Numbers 1. In Genesis 49, Joseph and Levi were each a tribe; in Numbers 1, Joseph’s sons had been elevated to two tribes.


The reference to the twelve tribes in Exodus 28:21 is significant because Moses was instructed to label each jewel on the breastplate of the Priest by name. In order to obey, Moses would have to know which list of names to label. To speculate, the Genesis list seems reasonable because Exodus 28:21 equates the tribes of Israel with the sons of Israel. The list of jewels might shed some light. Levi would most naturally be aligned with the third jewel listed in 28:17, since he was the third born. If there was any way to associate Levi with that jewel, then a stronger case can be made. But the jewel has an insufficient number of citations in the Old Testament. (See optional comment 2).


2The cutoff ages were different. Numbers 1 applied to those age 20 and up; Numbers 3 applied to those age 1 month and up.



Excursus: Rounded Numbers


Were I to find out in glory that the Bible sometimes rounds its numbers, I would accept it without qualm or reservation. There is evidence that suggests Yes, and evidence that says No.


On the Yes side (biblical numbers are sometimes rounded): Mere probability alone suggests that the likelihood of all twelve tribes having a population which is each divisible by 50 is one-in-a big number. Any first year probability student can calculate it in seconds, but it’s big. And let’s be a little practical here: a census is not an instantaneous event. People turn 20, and people die as the census is taking place. Rounded census numbers merely admit the obvious – that the precision of unrounded numbers in a census just isn’t there.


But make no mistake: if God directs something, the fact that He faces odds that exceed one-in-a-million-quadrillion is no barrier to Him.


On the No side (no rounded numbers): The final tally of the special census was 22,000 to 22,273. And God wouldn’t round the 22,273. The context of the true-up tax demands that 22,000 cannot be comprehended as rounding.


For me, I landed on the No side while reading John 21:11. John reported that Peter had just caught 1531 fish. The count was Spirit-inspired. John could see that Peter had a successful cast, but he could not possibly have eyeballed it to 153. And John – the second least educated of all biblical human authors (after Peter) certainly did not interrupt the proceedings to call for an exact count.


And I’m sure that we all have varying perceptions of the intensity of 153 fish caught in a single cast. But somehow I don’t see the Holy Spirit refusing to round to 150 (for fear that too many readers would trivialize the catch) or round to 160 (for fear that 160 would pierce the threshold of believability for too many readers). John wrote 153, because that was the number of fish Peter caught.2


1 John is reporting the number of fish Peter caught. I reject any so-called deeper meaning understanding of that passage that includes the observation that 9 times 17 is 153.


2 When John used round numbers, he qualified them with the word “about.” John 1:39; 4:6; 6:10; 6:19; 11:18; 19:14; 19:39.



Excursus: Scripture Memorization vs the Version Explosion


This comment was provoked when I was looking up which jewel might have been associated with Levi. Exodus 28:15 and following give instructions on how to make the Priest’s breastplate. Twelve jewels are commanded in verses 17-20. I picked thirteen versions that are shown on biblehub. The various translations appear in the chart below:


Of the thirteen versions, there are eight different list combinations cited – all translating from the same original. 7 of the 12 jewels have a divided opinion of which jewel God is commanding. I recognize that the English language changes over time. I do not propose forever using archaic language.


The disturbing part is that Carbunkle and Jasper appear in two positions each and sometimes not at all. And Beryl and Emerald appear in three positions. For jewel 6, you are not going to persuade me that the word “diamond” has become obsolete, and that we now call them emeralds. Nor are you going to persuade me that there has been a change in gemological standards. For jewel 6, at most one of Crystal, Diamond, Emerald and Jasper is correct; and the other three (or all four) are wrong.


There are about 200 English translations competing for our attention. And the adversary has figured out how to make Bible memorization impossible – not difficult, impossible. You may persevere to memorize Exodus 28:17-20. Perhaps you memorized this passage from NIV. And there is no doubt you have memorized well. Once you can command a verse, you start to get comfortable with the cadence of the verse. And the cadence will slot the words into place even better than you can memorize the individual words.


As long as you are exposed only to the NIV, Exodus 28:17-20 will remain in your memory. But eventually, you will hear the passage read from the ESV. (So the following scene is drawn from the top two lines on the chart.) You will find that Jewel 1 Ruby was changed to Sardius. Since you probably don’t know what a Sardius is, you can probably handle that one. You will simply catalogue Sardius in your mind as a type of Ruby, and you move on. You probably also handled John 3:16 quite nicely when they changed “everlasting” to “eternal.”


Jewel 2 Topaz matches, so you are fine. At Jewel 3, you can catalogue a Carbunkle as a type of Beryl. I don’t know what either of them are anyway. Jewel 4 will start crashing memory cells. For I know what a Turquoise is, and I know what an Emerald is, and I know that they are not the same thing. Worse, I have Emerald slotted for Jewel 6. I’m not ready to hear Emerald in my cadence until after the Sapphire. And all my Emeralds are turning into Diamonds. And a Carbunkle isn’t really a type of Beryl – they moved Beryl to where the Chrysolite belongs.


And the cadence in your mind becomes de-programmed, and the words that you used to satisfy the cadence are lost. The memory eraser couldn’t have done a better job if he had hid your NIV at the first.


I am aware that Exodus 28:17-20 is not a hotbed of memorization activity. But people actively engaged in Bible memorization should never have to be exposed to the verses they have memorized being recited from a different version.


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